ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
There was a dramatic admission today at a hearing on why 12 men died at a coal mine in Sago, West Virginia earlier this year. One of the rescue workers apologized for contributing to a miscommunication that led family members on the surface to begin celebrating. The purpose of the hearing at West Virginia Wesleyan College was to let relatives question state and federal officials about what caused the accident. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Buckhannon, West Virginia.
FRANK LANGFITT: Bill Tucker was among the first rescuers to discover the bodies. Tucker says when he first saw them, he thought they were dead. But in the confusion, hundreds of feet underground, he thinks he may have said something else.
BILL TUCKER: I started screaming for help and saying, they're over here, they're over here. I don't recall the exact words that I used, but I, I, and I didn't have a radio, I was just screaming out for help, and I think I said they're alive. And that may have been part of the communication error.
LANGFITT: The results of the communication error were devastating. For several hours family members thought their loved ones had survived in a miracle. Kevin Stricklin, an official with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, described the reaction outside the mine when they learned the truth.
KEVIN STRICKLIN: The thing I remember the most is the only thing you could hear is a fan running. I mean, there was not a word being said at that time. It just went from a jubilation-type situation, naturally, with the rescue of the miners, to having only one survivor.
LANGFITT: The mine owner, International Coal Group, has said information was garbled as it traveled from the surface through a series of radio relay stations. Another rescue worker, Ron Hixson, put on a mask and respirator to show how hard it was to communicate underground. An audience of about 200 watched from folding chairs on the college's basketball court. Hixson also explained that rescuers may have become confused when they cut into each other's radio transmissions.
RON HIXSON: In all the excitement and everything that was going on, if I don't hold the mike down, the key button long enough and release it too soon, the man at nine crosscut may be only hearing part of the message. Just, uh, if I may just say one thing, for myself and the mine rescue team members involved, we apologize for any of the problems or heartaches that the miscommunications caused. That was not meant to be.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
LANGFITT: In a statement, family members said rescue workers were not at fault, but that the miscommunication was part of a bigger, systemic problem. After the testimony, a group of family members greeted the rescue workers on stage. They hugged the two men and wept. Ron Hixson patted one woman on the shoulder as they spoke quietly.
HIXSON: They just stated that they didn't blame us, that they knew that we did everything that we could. That means everything. I mean, we basically feel like at times that we might have failed them, and for them to know that we did everything we could, I mean, it means everything.
LANGFITT: The International Coal Group argued during the hearing that a lightening strike may have caused the blast, but the miners' family members are skeptical and wonder how an electrical charge could have penetrated so deep into the mine. Federal and state investigators will present their findings either later today or tomorrow. A final federal report on the cause of the disaster is probably months away. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Buckhannon, West Virginia.
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